Yes, as long as you closely coordinate with your DSO to obtain approval for CPT or OPT.
While you’re in F-1 status, there are two ways that you can work for an off-campus company: OPT and CPT. Any work in either category must be approved by your university's DSO.
Options While Still Attending Classes
Students still attending classes have two options: CPT and Pre-Completion OPT. With limited exceptions, students must complete one full academic year of study before being eligible.
CPT does not allow self-employment, and this is typically interpreted fairly strictly. If you are a startup co-founder holding a minority stake in the company, your DSO may be willing to approve your request to work for the startup on CPT. If you own a majority stake, however, you may need to consider OPT instead
Pre-Completion OPT allows you to start and work for your own business, and can be started after you have been in F-1 status for at least one academic year.
Every F-1 student is granted 12 months of full-time OPT per educational level. Pre-completion OPT can normally be used in full-time or part-time increments, where two months of part-time OPT = one month of full-time OPT. While classes are in session, you will be limited to part-time work.
The downside of using pre-completion OPT is that it reduces the amount of OPT left to use after graduation. If, for instance, you use 6 months of part-time pre-completion OPT (the equivalent of 3 months full-time), this will reduce the amount of OPT you have available after graduation from 12 months to 9 months.
Options After Graduation
Post-Completion OPT allows you the freedom to found and work for your own company with few restrictions. Unless you engaged in pre-completion OPT as described above, you will be eligible for a full year of Post-Completion OPT.
STEM Extension OPT. Graduates of STEM fields are eligible to extend their OPT by an additional 2 years, for a total of 3 years. The STEM Extension period of OPT has several additional restrictions that the first year does not:
- The company must sign off on a formal training plan outlining what you will learn during your STEM OPT period and who will be the qualified mentor supervising this training program.
- Self-employment is not unequivocally allowed as it is the first year. During the STEM Extension period, the OPT worker must be able to show an employer-employee relationship with the company. While this might appear to exclude founders with a majority stake in the company from continuing to work for the company under a STEM Extension, this is not always the case. In practice, we have found that the focus of this requirement in the STEM OPT context appears to be largely on the availability of a qualified mentor within the company to oversee the training plan described in the bullet point above. (When in doubt, consult your DSO about your eligibility.)
- The company must register for E-Verify, a Department of Labor software platform used to verify the work authorization of employees.
- You must receive compensation "commensurate to that provided to similarly situated U.S. workers." DHS has explicitly clarified that in the context of a startup, this compensation may take the form of equity in the company if that is how the startup is compensating its US workers as well.